Debuting as a 2017 model year, the current generation 5 Series (G30 chassis code) received mixed reviews. Across the board, critics enjoyed the powerful and economical engine, well-appointed interior, good tech integration, and decent styling upgrades over the outgoing models. Some found the steering and overall size and weight to be less than desirable in what many used to call the ultimate sports sedan, and pricy packaging. After spending a little bit of time with the new for 2021 540i, some of this has changed; some of this has not.
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Stylistically, the 2021 BMW 540i receives massive upgrades all around. My car was a Black Sapphire Metallic over Black Nappa leather car, with the M Sport Package and the Shadowline Package – more or less, an OEM “blacked out” look. The M Sport Package weighs in at a hefty $3,300, but you get a lot for your money.
An M Sport (thicker) steering wheel is added, along with variable sport steering (tighter steering ratio and a little heavier steering). It also gets you the new for 2021 “Aluminum Rhombicle Smoke Gray” interior trim (which looks a little bit like the M340i’s aluminum trim but with much less glare and a little darker in color) and an Anthracite headliner.
On the exterior you get the familiar, more aggressive body cladding – side skirts, front and rear bumpers, and even a little diffuser in the rear. Lastly, you’ll also be paired off to more aggressive 20” wheels for a reduced $950, dubbed Style 846M, in a mix of black and aluminum finish.
The Shadowline package, at a mere $550, adds BMW Individual “Shadowline” lights in the front and rear – basically, blacked out housings that give the car an extremely aggressive appearance. You also get Shadowline trim, which blacks out almost all of the chrome on the car except the badge.
There’s no question that this car looks every bit as modern as a 2021 car can – certainly no disservice was done here. The G30 was an aging chassis (introduced before iDrive 7 and the current BMW design language shift) that has absolutely been brought in line with the rest of the refreshed lineup, like the 3 Series and 7 Series.
The interior also offers increased creature comforts – the Luxury Seating Package, a $1,000 option package, gets you ventilated and multi-contour seats, which are more akin to something you’d find in a 7 Series (also, ventilated seats are a bit of a must have here in Arizona).
Massaging seats are another $1,000 option and remain pretty much the same as they were in the older cars. The iDrive screen has grown considerably since the last year’s model, now up to 12.3 inches and brings it on level with the current 7 Series.
It’s good that the screen has grown, because finally BMW is offering Android Auto alongside Apple CarPlay, so no matter your device, you’ll be well connected. Remote Engine Start is now available and works as flawlessly on this 540i as it does on all the other models, even allowing you to start the car remotely with your phone.
There’s no doubt about it – if you prescribe any meaning to the idiom “dress for success”, the 2021 540i is the $3000 business suit barreling down the street, talking loudly, briefcase in hand and AirPods in both ears. I feel like this car might be able to fire me – but I’m too afraid to ask.
But style won’t get you too far without a little bit of substance, so of course the logical next question is – how does it drive?
The Driving Experience
Well, it drives. Straight line speed is adequate; the 335hp B58 single-turbo inline six does its job well, never really leaving you wanting for more power (and if you do want more power, the big brother 523 hp V8 M550i is only a couple thousand dollars away).
I remember quietly lamenting the fact that this car did not receive the tuned-up version that the M340i and X3 M40i received (at 385 hp), because it seems like such an obvious thing to include and would only enhance the driving experience. But, nevertheless, this car is not an”M540i”, as a coworker wisely pointed out, and the power isn’t totally missed, especially if you aren’t accustomed to its other applications.
A new addition to the 540i for 2021 is the much-talked about 48V “mild-hybrid” system. The idea behind this system is to use regenerative braking to power a 48V battery, which powers the lights, steering, and most interior amenities. This reduces parasitic loss on the engine, giving you more power and increased efficiency.
Additionally, lag is reduced when the vehicle’s “auto-start/stop” feature kicks in. In prior models, there was a noticeable amount of lag between the time you put your foot down and when the car moves – this has been rectified and noticeably cut down to almost zero. It will also allow the vehicle to turn the engine off completely while at cruising speeds, conditions permitted, returning even better fuel economy despite the occasionally thirsty inline six.
Steering is where things get a little more tense; I’m sad to report that I felt no noticeable changes in how the car responds from the pre-facelift versions, despite the inclusion of the variable sport steering option. Steering is still light, even in its most aggressive mode, and feedback is fairly minimal.
Again – not a problem unless you’re expecting M5 steering for half the price. I’d even go as far as to say this might be intentional – there’s no doubt it’s a more “luxurious” experience, and that seems to be pretty obviously the market BMW is targeting with this car.
Despite the 20” wheels, tramlining wasn’t an issue, and oversteer will come if you force it, but the car’s size and weight keep it from being much of a handful, even if you’re trying.
Suspension tuning, on the other hand, is pretty darn good. It’s been a while since I’ve driven the old G30, but I certainly don’t remember it being this good. Sport Plus mode offers firm but comfortable option, and (steering aside) gives you the “weekend enthusiast” enough of an idea of what the road is doing to make it fun.
Body roll is almost a non-issue, surprisingly – it’s a very odd sensation to feel very little through the steering wheel, but also feel a well-connected chassis remain planted through tight corners. There’s little flex present and in this respect I think BMW has kept fairly true to its enthusiast roots, which is a good sign.
Comfort mode wafts you along like a magic carpet ride – absorbing bumps and undulations that normally force even well-damped cars to stutter and hop. Overall, the chassis remains very much a fundamentally great one. The red painted M Sport Brakes ($650 stand alone option) stop the car well, but it’s nothing to write home about.
How I’d Spec it
The car as tested had a little bit of a value proposition, to be sure – at a $76,385 MSRP up from a start price of $59,450, you’re looking at a little over $15,000 in add-ons. Things get difficult here again – the car looks fantastic, but largely non-functional, cosmetic upgrades account for about $5,500 of that upcharge.
I’d have a hard time making this car look any less sinister – sadly, because its much of the allure. I could do with the normal sport seats, removing the $1000 massaging function and $1,000 Luxury Seating Package. I could lose the $800 Park Assistance Package, though it does represent one of the better values available for this car (360 Camera, Drive Recorder, self parking).
Another $200 for the heated steering wheel (in Arizona…c’mon), and a big savings by getting rid of the Driving Assistance Plus Package (self driving in traffic, steering intervention and near-autonomous driving – none of which adds value for me) for $1700.
The closer this car gets to $70,000, the better value it becomes. But it is important to note the versatility offered with the packaging – you can spec this car a few dozen different ways and end up with a vastly different experience every time. Just make sure the options you choose are the ones that matter most to you, and generally go light, and this car starts making a lot of sense very quickly.
Should I Buy One?
Most reviews of any 5 Series (or really, any BMW at all) will eventually wrap back around to the old days; the days of the five-speed manual and thirsty V8s and what have you. That isn’t a mistake – particularly with the 5 Series, the badge on the back represents some of the best cars ever made, full stop.
There’s no doubt about it – the BMW 540i of today has seen a lot of reform since 2003. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. The enthusiast option will of course be the M550i, or the M5 if you’ve made peace with taking on an additional house payment for the pleasure of driving a performance sedan.
But the 2021 BMW 540i has its place too – and the improvements made for the 2021 model year show that BMW isn’t as tone deaf as they sometimes can appear to be. Huge aesthetic improvements combined with good power and great connectivity can’t possibly amount to a failure – as long as your expectations are in line.